In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printin...moreIn principio erat verbum
In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.
The finished product - from the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center Library
Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.
When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.
The author - from her Facebook page
Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.
Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer
In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).
The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.
For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.
Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.
I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.
I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.
Hi, welcome. I’m happy to see you are settling in to read this now. But…what?...really?…please…ignore that chirp that just told you a new e-mail arriv...moreHi, welcome. I’m happy to see you are settling in to read this now. But…what?...really?…please…ignore that chirp that just told you a new e-mail arrived. It is probably just another add for Viagra or penile enlargement. It is almost never something critical, so…hey…come back. Son of a bitch. (Taps fingers on desk, plays some solitaire, checks watch) Ah, you’re back. Took long enough. Geez. All right, can we get back to it now? You remember? The book is A Deadly Wandering, a pretty amazing look at attention, the demands on it, how it functions, how it is being compromised, and what the implications are for some aspects of that. Stop, no, do you have to answer the phone now? Can’t it wait? (sighs loudly, checks e-mail on a separate screen; weather.com lets us know upcoming conditions in another tab; who is pitching for the Mets tonight?) Oh, you’re back, sorry. Been there long? I must have wandered off. Focus.
I know a little bit about distraction. My job entails constant blasts of it. I work as a dispatcher for a security company. I have a dozen or more sites checking in every hour to make sure our guards are not sleeping (or that they know how to set the alarms on their cell phones). People call asking for their schedules. People call at 2 in the morning to let us know they will not be showing up for their 6am shift. They call because they just turned the wrong way and the cell phone in their pocket somehow redialed the last number they’d called. They call at 4am to let us know they will not be coming in for their 6am shift. They call asking for direction when there is some event at their site that requires handling. (This does go on for a bit, so rather than inflict on you the horrors of my typical work night, I will leave a full viewing for the intrepid and tuck a chunk of it under a spoiler label)(view spoiler)[Our clients call, sometimes asking for emergency ASAP coverage in diverse places across the continent, sometimes to add ridiculous increases to the number of guards they want for a morning shift at a large institution. Our security guards call to ask if their check is at the office, or to inquire as to why the totals on their checks did not match what they expected. They call to let us know they have arrived at their post. They call to let us know they have clocked out for the day. They call at 5am to let us know they will not be in for their 6am shift because they have a newly discovered “appointment.” There are many, many calls. It makes it damned tough to keep a log of all the calls, particularly when half a dozen arrive at the exact same moment. It makes it tough to prepare the multiple reports of overnight activity, all of which have to be transmitted during the busiest time of the morning. In the middle of this, the boss comes in, drops papers on my desk and asks when this or that person arrived at or left from a post sometime in the last week or so. For someone who is, shall we say, not comfortable with being interrupted, this presents some challenges. And it presents a real problem. I write the bulk of my reviews while at work. And to enter notes, do research on items, and then compose actual reviews of books during this time can be a bit difficult. Thoughts that have not made their way into a file are in constant danger of vanishing into the ether with the next barrage of incomings. I scream sometimes. (hide spoiler)] I frequently forget what I was doing before the latest set of calls. And, struggling to remember, I am interrupted yet again by the next set. The one good thing about this blitzkrieg of interruption is that I am not enduring it while behind the wheel of a ton-plus hunk of metal hurtling down the road at 60 mph. My sanity may be in jeopardy, (or long gone) but I present no existential threat to the rest of humanity. The same cannot be said for the main character in Richtel’s story.
By all accounts nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw is a decent young man. A Mormon, he was eager to serve his community by preparing for and then undertaking an LDS mission. His first try had come up short, so he was back home, working until he could build up enough moral credit to try again. In September, 2006, while driving a Chevy Tahoe SUV, Reggie had his Cingular flip-phone with him and was texting with his girlfriend. A witness reported seeing him weaving across the center line multiple times. Finally, Reggie weaved too far. The results were fatal. Reggie came through ok but two scientists were killed as a result of Reggie’s texting, leaving wives and children to pick up the charred pieces of their lives and go on without their breadwinners, husbands, fathers. Reggie denied he was texting when the accident occurred.
Matt Richtel is a novelist and top-notch reporter. He won a Pulitzer for a series of articles, written for the New York Times, in which he detailed the national safety crisis resulting from increasing use of distracting devices by drivers. He has written a few novels and even pens a comic strip. There is nothing at all amusing, however, about the tale he tells here.
Matt Richtel - from his site
The core of A Deadly Wandering is how constant distraction, particularly while in a car, kills. Richtel looks at the case of Reggie Shaw as a prime example of how the distractions that have become embedded in our lives have unintended consequences. Richtel spends time with Reggie, with the cop who pursued the case when most officials wanted to brush it off and move on, the surviving family members, and a victim’s advocate who pursued prosecution of the case. Richtel also talks with several neuroscientists who have been studying the science of attentiveness. That material is quite eye-opening.
There are legal questions in here regarding where responsibility lies for such events, and how far communities are willing to go to punish violations and even to establish that such behavior is not permissible. Where does your freedom to act irresponsibly interfere with my right to stay alive? There are scientific questions about how the brain functions in a world that seems to demand multi-tasking. How does the brain work in dealing with attentiveness? What is possible? What is not? Where are the edges of that envelope?
When drug companies want to bring to market a product for public use, they must go through a significant review process to make sure their product is safe to use. Before auto manufacturers can bring a vehicle to market they must put it through safety testing.
But neither Verizon nor any other cellphone company supports legislation that bans drivers from talking on the phone. And the wireless industry does not conduct research on the dangers, saying that is not its responsibility - From - Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit
And the corporations know what they are doing with their techolology.
If you take yourself back millennia, and you're in the jungle or you're in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you're doing, whatever hut you're building, stop and run. Well, here's what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let's say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren't these modern bombardments; they're the most primitive bombardments. They're playing to these most primitive impulses and they're asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot. - from the Terry Gross interview
In addition, and in a chillingly similar impact to other addictive substances, our communications technology knows how to make itself feel crucial to us.
when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring - you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you're getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response. - also from the NPR interview
Richtel follows Reggie’s story through to the end, at least for some of the players here. Laws have been changed. New knowledge has been gained. Responsibility has been allocated. Amends have been attempted. It is a moving tale. In addition, you will learn a lot about what science has found about how our brains handle multiple concurrent demands. You will learn about change in how distracted driving is being addressed by our legal system. But most of what you will get from reading this book is a chilling appreciation for what is involved in distracted driving. You might even be persuaded to switch off your phone the next time you get behind the wheel. At least I hope you are. I would like to live a bit longer and not be taken out before my time because someone was talking on the phone with their friend, texting with their significant other, or trying to order penile growth products from the road. I would like to live long enough to spend at least a few more nights screaming at the phone to stop ringing at work so I can get some writing done. That call you were thinking of making while in the car can wait. It really is a matter of life and death. A Deadly Wandering is must read material. Please, please pay attention.
The US Department of Transportation has a site dedicated to distracted driving. There are some interesting bits of information available there. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
One of the things we enjoy most about spy stories is when a non-pro gets caught up in international intrigue. Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps...moreOne of the things we enjoy most about spy stories is when a non-pro gets caught up in international intrigue. Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps (The film, of course. Yes, I know he was an intel-guy in the book) and Roger Thornhill
Robert Donat as Hannay in Hitchcock’s classic
in North by Northwest pop immediately to mind. While our everyman in Mission to Paris may not exactly be just anyone, Frederic Stahl, a B-list movie star in Paris for a shoot, is, by virtue of his profession, a person of influence. (I see Mads Mikkelsen as Frederic, and yes, I know he is Danish)
It is 1938, and Paris is a place where influence and propaganda are manifestations of war by other means. Stahl is targeted by the Nazi propaganda machine, looking to use his renown to help put a reassuring face on their particular brand of unpleasantness. Baronness Maria Von Reschke, the dragon lady hostess of a local and notorious salon, invites him to stop by and hob nob with the rich and Hitlerian. When she is not busy ordering the help around, she passes the time facilitating Nazi intel activities in France.
No introductions necessary
We know what lies ahead, and most of the characters in the story know what is coming, but no one can prevent the inevitable. However, the Americanized Stahl (born in Austria to an Austrian mother and Slovenian father, but now a Tinsel Town resident), eager to prove his loyalty, is responsive when the American consul asks for his help. He accepts the odd Reichian offer or two at the behest of the diplomat, hoping to use the users to good purpose.
Furst populates his tales with an array of fun characters and MtP is no exception. There are bug-eyed Nazi fanatics, contract killers, kidnappers, a Russian intel source, a honey-pot siren, and an entire, colorful cast for the film Stahl is actually making. I quite enjoyed this lineup. There is even a legit love interest for our hero.
Mads about Paris?
One of the things Furst does best is create a feel for the time and place. And he is particularly fond of Paris. You will have no trouble at all mentally slapping on a beret, lighting up a Galoise and heading out for a nice bowl of potage du l'oignon. We are also treated to a few sidetrips. These include Berlin, a filming in Morocco, along with a bit of intrigue and a murder, another location shoot in Hungary, with a resident count (no, not that one) and a few more for good measure. All the locales are fun in their own way. Furst is economical and effective in depicting place and setting moods, in this case imminent peril, rising international tension, and, on occasion, romance.
There is only the rare bit of comic relief in Mission to Paris, but I warn you there is one scene near the end that might cause you to shoot your Moët out your nose.
Mission to Paris is hardly high literature, but it does not pretend to be. It is a historical spy novel that offers a bit of intel on what was going on at the time. You will definitely learn a thing or two, and get a feel for the political atmosphere of Paris during the buildup to World War II. The politics of funding the Maginot Line is fascinating. The pretext used by the Nazis to organize Krystallnacht is alarming, and will feel familiar. Some detail on the use of sand in Parisian war preparations is surprising. And a very personal motivation for the Warner Brothers Studio’s antipathy to De Fuehrer comes into play. Mostly, though, Mission to Paris is top notch entertainment, a classic, rip-roaring spy novel that you will put down only grudgingly, maybe if you spot someone in the shadows pointing a luger at your head.
And while it makes a perfect summer read, I see it more as filling a rainy autumn afternoon, ingested with a warm cup of your favorite liquid at hand, as you race through the pages, a throw over your lap and legs, a fire in a hearth, and if you are very, very lucky, an eyeful of tower in your line of sight.
Mission to Paris is the twelfth volume in Furst’s Night Soldiers series. I received this book through the Goodreads FurstFirstReads program. It was released a year ago, so an unusual FirstReads item. Furst has a new one just out, Midnight in Europe. No doubt sending a few extra copies of MtP into the world is intended to encourage readers to check out the new one. I know I want to. The new one may or may not live up to Furst’s high standard, but one thing is for sure. We’ll always have Mission to Paris.
Review Posted – July 11, 2014
Publication date - 7/4/2013
Here is a wonderful piece on Furst in the Wall Street Journal. Definitely worth a look. Wall Street Journal